On January 20, 2009, former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama made history. It was the first time a black man and woman celebrated their inauguration as President and First Lady. Another person made history that day. Isabel Toledo, a Cuban immigrant, designed the dress and coat that Michelle Obama wore on that historic day.
As a Latina designer, this moment was a first and it put her on the map, to say the least. She also opened the gateway for everyone to take notice of Latinx fashion designers. Yesterday, her longtime husband and collaborator, Ruben Toledo, announced that his wife had died in a Manhattan hospital of breast cancer at age 59.
“I knew that what I wore to my husband’s first inauguration would go down in history, so I wanted something that would not only live up to the moment but would also stand up to the freezing cold of that January day.” Michelle said in a statement to The New York Times, “With her incredible creativity and masterful talent, Isabel designed a beautiful lemongrass outfit that I just loved. She more than met the moment — for that day and for all of history.”
While the matching coat and dress stirred up some ridiculous controversy due to the color of the garments — some said it was lime green, others said it was gold — Toledo said it best herself. In 2009, she said the color was “a very optimistic color.”
Toledo was an authentic architecture of women’s clothing and didn’t like being called a fashion designer. To her, constructing a dress for a woman went a lot deeper than fashion. She was building a moment.
In a 2012 interview with CNN, Toledo described her pure aesthetic in her profession. “I’m not supposed to say I’m not a fashion person, but I’m not. I just, I love design. Design is so different than fashion. That’s why design lasts forever. It’s like an engineer. I love to engineer a garment,” she said. “To make this thing work, to make it stand, to make this sculpture work. I get all enthralled if I have to come up with: How do I sew this cloth? What am I saying with the fabric? It’s nothing to do with, ‘what does it look like?'”
It’s that mentality that captured the former First Lady and countless fashion lovers all over the world. Her partnership with her husband Ruben also contributed to the romance of her clothes. The power duo met in high school back in the ’70s, and while they had a lot in common (he was an artist and he was also from Cuba), she was not instantly taken by him. He was of her, of course. “Isabel walked into my Spanish class and it was love at first sight within three seconds,” he said in 2012. She said she was always playing hard to get. They were married for more than 30 years.
A true legend may be gone in the physical sense, but her inspiration remains with us forever.